Depending on how you came to this piece, you may or may not be familiar with Critical Role. So, I’ll explain all this briefly. Dungeons and Dragons, let’s start there. Tabletop roleplaying game. Started in the 70s, big in the 80s, satanic panic, and so on. In 2013, Wizards of the Coast who own D&D released the 5th Edition of the game. Generally, editions are like sequels in games. They iterate in their own way with specific goals in mind. People still enjoy the previous entries and may prefer them. Based on comments by the design team of this edition it seems the purpose of this version of the game was to be welcoming enough for new players and robust enough for veterans. So, how does this relate to Critical Role?
Critical Role is a weekly live stream on Twitch where, as Matt Mercer explains, “a bunch of us nerdy-ass voice actors sit around and play Dungeons and Dragons”. The show started in 2015 and has been running ever since. Critical is perhaps the most popular live play of Dungeons and Dragons. Between the accessibility of 5th edition and the eminently watchable nature of Critical Role, many new people have been exposed to Dungeons and Dragons through this show and other shows like it, including me. Now, as part of this, some online discourse has held Matt Mercer up as the DM standard that people are compared to. So, let’s look at this comparison.
First, I’ll start with the history of Critical Role. One of the cast, Liam O’Brien, was a fan of Dungeons and Dragons when he was growing up but found less time for the hobby as he became a busy adult in the entertainment industry (particularly in the field of voice-over). Liam suggested that a bunch of his friend’s get together for a D&D game for his birthday one year. From there, a home game developed. This consisted of people Liam knew through his voice acting work.
Matt Mercer (who you may know as McCree, Leon Kennedy in the late 2000s, or a host of anime characters who I have only vague knowledge of) became the DM for this home game. The players included folks like Travis Willingham (Kingpin in the 2018 Spider-Man game, Knuckles the Echnida, Thor in Marvel cartoons, and something called a Roy Mustang), Laura Bailey (who has so many credits to her name including Kid Trunks in Dragon Ball Z, Chun-Li in the Street Fighter games, and Nadine Ross from the Uncharted series), previously mentioned Liam O’Brien (he probably voiced at least one broody anime boy that you know including Gaara from Naruto), Sam Riegel (most notable for playing Donatello in the Ninja Turtles that I grew up with amongst a host of other roles), Marisha Ray (whose work is mostly in producing online content and has an array of voice acting credits to her name), Taliesin Jaffe (who was a former child actor and now has a variety of voice acting credits to his name), and Ashley Johnson (probably best known for her performance as Ellie in The Last of Us or her role in the TV show Blindspot).
At one point, it was suggested that the group play their home game for an audience. This would be shown on Geek & Sundry. Many of the cast have noted that the proviso of airing their home game is that they didn’t want the game to be changed by having an audience in the sense that the nature of the game would not change. Naturally, when you’re aware of an audience there is an element of performativity in the way that certain performativity permeates all our lives. We’re not the same people to our parents as we are to our close friends. Matt Mercer has also noted that around the time of the stream’s launch, the group changed from playing Pathfinder to 5th edition D&D. Pathfinder is a game that is adjacent to D&D but comes with its own systems and rules. I’ll return to this detail later.
Before that, let’s talk about my own experience with D&D. It was not a game I was overly familiar beyond derisive ideas about the game that seeped into the pop cultural milieu. I had played board games that used the D&D name (Castle Ravenloft). I used to frequent local board gaming nights and have my own set of board games that I grew fond of. I have played many a western RPG video game and professed my love for the Elder Scrolls series. I made my way through Lord of the Rings, the Hobbit, and A Song of Ice and Fire. All this to say, I was a pretty mainstream fantasy geek with hobbies just as geeky as D&D but I had given little thought to the game. It was on my periphery but not in my face. Then, I watched a video. It wasn’t from Critical Role. It was this video. There are two things I want to note about this video. This is a group of first-time players led by a fairly green DM. As part of this, Johnny the DM lays out the math behind the game which is shown on screen. He will also mention the difficulty of any given activity. For example, he will ask for an acrobatics check of 20. Then a player will work out all the numbers that they add on top of the d20.
Following this video, I decided I wanted to play. However, I needed some people to play. My younger brother had been playing the game for a little while so I asked if he could be the DM. I began asking friends if they might be interested in a session of D&D. It took months but eventually, I got a group together. If they enjoyed the one-shot, I would discuss creating an ongoing group and go from there. I floated the idea of being the DM if no-one else wanted to step forward. Soon enough, I found myself with a group ready to play a campaign. Our first session with me as DM was sometime in January of 2018. For the past year, I’ve been playing and loving D&D. As a new DM learning a comprehensive ruleset, it was a trial by fire. I’m still learning rules to this day. What’s my point in all this?
Watching these first-time players play D&D was perhaps the perfect way for me to enter the hobby. I think there’s also one crucial element that the Outside Xbox video shows that is less common in Critical Role. The players at that table make each other laugh. There’s chaotic energy to them that is quintessential D&D. In this episode, they all want to contribute to interrogating a rat. This isn’t to say that Critical Role is a serious show. They have their humour just as anyone else does. Sam Riegel plays the comic relief so well in that show. That build-up of tension and comic release is emotionally effective. I’m not looking to uphold or condemn one style over another which is kind of the point I want to make.
Some uphold Matt Mercer to be the pinnacle of a DM, the archetype that foolish mortals aspire to. The reality is that Matt is an actor running a game for other actors. He’s a DM with all the previous editions in his head as well as Pathfinder. His style is idiosyncratic. There is a heavy focus on character but the three pillars of D&D are all there (combat, exploration, social). Johnny’s style is idiosyncratic too. I really like the way Johnny plays noble type characters as stoic but also bewildered. There is a comedic style to Johnny’s NPC as he embraced the improvisation of the players. Matt is really good at capturing the psychology of a character so they feel distinctive. Both of these DMs, while being widely different, are both great at crafting a scene. So, when the comparison to Matt Mercer does come up in circles, I think it misses the point of the DM. A Dungeon Master is a synthesis of the players they’ve run for. You learn as you go often as the DM. The mark of a good DM is simple then, they always bring it back to their players within a game. The only DM that people should compare DMs to is themselves. Are you a better DM than you were last week? Will you be a better DM next week? In this context, better just means more effective at what you’re trying to achieve. There’s a bit of sage wisdom that seems to have come from Reddit. There’s no wrong way to play to D&D, so a comparison becomes a moot point. As noted below that thread, the wrong ways generally involve harmful ways of playing such as dangerous locales, indecent exposure, and toxicity. Perhaps D&D is like sex in that regard. Communication is key to a good experience and so long as everything is safe, sane and consensual then you’re on the right path. Also, it’s pointless to compare the DM you have to a hypothetical experience with a celebrity.
Please let me know your thoughts through this questionnaire.
Want to support my work? You can support me financially on Patreon.
If a monthly payment isn’t in the budget, you can chuck me a dollar via PayPal.
Got thoughts? Comment below or via social media.